The global award in photography and sustainability

Gideon Mendel

“The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.” (‘The Second Coming’, W.B.Yeats)

As global warming drives an increasing number of extreme weather events Yeats’s message resonates strongly for me and I have been drawn to photograph in flooded landscapes around the world.

Drowning World is my long-term project– an attempt to explore the effects of climate change in an intimate way, and I have over the years made a series of what I call ‘Submerged Portraits’. In each of these the pose is conventional and while and the flooded environment of my subjects is chaotic and disconcertingly altered I try to make the moment of the portrait calm and connected. In this landscape where life is turned upside down and normality is suspended my intention is for their unsettling gaze to challenge the viewer.

Drowning World began in 2007 when I photographed two floods that occurred within weeks of each other, one in the UK and the other in India. I was deeply struck by the contrasting impacts of these floods, along with the shared vulnerability that seemed to unite their victims.

Since then I have endeavoured to visit flood zones around the world, travelling to Haiti, Pakistan, Australia, Thailand, Nigeria, Germany, The Philippines, Brazil and returning again to the UK and India in 2014, in search of these commonalities and differences. Exploring these environments evokes many questions for me about our sense of stability in a disorderly world.

I choose to shoot on medium format film, using old Rolleiflex cameras. Although this is expensive and difficult to do while working under the most challenging of circumstances, I believe that it gives the images a distinctive quality and also necessitates a formal rigour in my approach.

This journey has led to further, related, bodies of work: Flood Lines documents the impact of floodwaters on interior landscapes and surfaces. Along the way I have also rescued a variety of flood damaged personal snapshots, some anonymous and some linked to specific families. The impact of the floodwaters on the chemistry of these prints creates a random and strangely disruptive effect. I have called this series Water Marks. A series of video pieces, The Water Chapters, has also grown organically from this process. My hope is to eventually make a major multi-screen installation where a grid of screens will create a global view of climate change.

The image of the flood is an ancient metaphor found within many cultures representing an overwhelming, destructive force. As the project has developed, the ‘conversation’ created by juxtaposing images from different floods in different countries at different times, side-by-side has become more interesting. The lives and fates of these individuals become clearly linked and they stand in solidarity amidst a deepening visual complexity.